Climate Change Is The Leading Cause Of Moose And Loon Population Decline In New Hampshire

Aug 1, 2017

Climate change, which causes rising temperatures, increasingly severe weather events, and shrinking habitats, negatively impacts the moose and loon populations of New Hampshire more than any other factors -- including human interference from road construction or hunting and fishing practices.

That's according to longtime wildlife observers, who joined The Exchange to deliver an update on these two beloved new Hampshire species. 

 

In January, The Exchange explored the correlation between climate change and the decline of the moose population based on an ongoing four-year study with New Hampshire Fish and Game. In a follow-up, The Exchange checked in with Kristine Rines, the study's project leader, Harry Vogel, of the Loon Preservation Committee, and David Patrick, of the Nature Conservancy.

 

“Moose are the canary in the coal mine; they are the species that is telling us climate change is real. It is happening here in the Granite State and it’s impacting our wildlife,” said Rines, who is moose project leader for the N.H. Fish and Game Department. "They are the precursor. They are telling us things are changing. And they’re changing fairly dramatically.”

One direct effect of climate change is shorter, warmer winters.  In 2007, New Hampshire experienced a record-breaking warm winter. According to Harry Vogel, this mild weather caused 22 loons to choose to stay inland on Lake Winnipesaukee instead of migrating to the coast. 

"Loons on their migratory path to the ocean saw what looked to be essentially an inland ocean - the weather was warm, the fishing was good," Vogel said. "They decided to stay for a while on Winnipesaukee, [but] they stayed too long and when the cold snap finally did happen, it caught them right in the middle of their wing feather molt, and [because they could not fly] they were unable to leave."

Late lake freezing due to warmer weather has led to an increasing need to rescue winter loons as more loons stay on unfrozen lakes until they begin molting, Vogel said. 

 This year's rainy spring – the fourth wettest in the past 100 years  -- was tough on loons.  “The ground was very saturated and when those storms ran through, all that water ran right off into our lakes.  And as a species that nests right at the water’s edge, loons are susceptible to those wet years and especially to storm events. And we did lose a number of nests due to washing out.”

Kristine Rines, who has been studying the correlation between moose and climate change with the University of New Hampshire since 2001, said late winters make moose much more susceptible to parasites. 

"Whether it's brain worm or winter ticks, these parasites are causing our moose to decline," Rines said. "And, as things continue to change, and our winters grow even shorter, that is going to be increasingly problematic."

Rines warned that New Hampshire could eventually become too warm for moose to survive. Moose, she said, are perfectly designed for cold weather.  Today, there are an estimated 3,500 moose in the state, down from 7,000 twenty years ago. 

One potentially controversial way to reduce the tick population and thereby help moose: increasing the moose hunt.  “It wouldn’t so much help moose recover but it would certainly reduce the incidence of ticks on the moose that are here," Rines said. "What we do know about winter tick is that it’s tied to moose density.”

The decision to increase hunting permits would be up to the general public, she said. “Whether we decide to do that remains to be seen. It would require a huge public education effort and further study." 

“The most important things we can do are protect open space, make sure there’s plenty of young forest so that moose can be distributed across the landscape, thereby somewhat reducing their densities," she said. "And really doing all we can in our own lives to reduce the impacts of climate change."

Exchange listener Gary emailed to ask if continued political denial of climate change could impact research and funding for preservation. 

David Patrick, of The Nature Conservancy, said that whether or not politicians or New Hampshire citizens recognize climate change as a credible threat, "the things we need to do to address climate change make an incredible amount of sense for this state." 

Patrick said: "We want local jobs, we want clean air, we want renewable energy. These things are all beneficial to New Hampshire. So, we can agree on that, and if we are putting our funding in those areas, then we are getting at the root cause [of habitat decline], as well as really benefiting the state."

To hear the entire conversation on moose and loons, listen here

Find more information about the moose population study, and about loon preservation